Saturday, May 6, 2023

Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of the RAW and the ISI, by Cathy Scott-Clark Adrian Levy - Review

This is a fast-paced read, but which comes across more as a Pakistan ISI sponsored pamphlet. 

The material is haphazardly put together. The veracity of several key conclusions is unsubstantiated. One has to rely on the authors' word. No corroborative evidence is presented. Pakistan's point of view is presented without critical scrutiny, as gospel. India's external intelligence agency, R&AW, is painted as a diabolical outfit that is incompetent and unaccountable by turn. 

The strife in Kashmir is presented after suppressing all accounts of horrors perpetrated over the decades against the ethnic Hindu minority. Former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf is shown as a leader who tried to solve the Kashmir crisis, notwithstanding his complicity in several terrorist attacks on India. 

The authors draw an equivalence between terror groups like LeT, Al Qaeda, and Jaish on the one hand and so-called Hindu terror organizations on the other. The authors' dislike for India's National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, borders on the disturbing. 

The Pulwama terrorist attack of 2019 is hinted at as a "false-flag" operation, using the same line of reasoning that would also make the 9/11 attacks in the United States a similar false flag operation. Yes, truly. 

India is the perpetual aggressor in this book, Pakistan the eternal wronged state at the receiving end. In other words, the authors seek to profit from luring gullible Indians into buying the book by promising them lurid details of spycraft, but delivers a left-liberal screed that whitewashes radical terrorism without compunctions.

© 2023, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Aryaa: An Anthology of Vedic Women—Review

Aryaa: An Anthology of Vedic Women

Ten Women Who Shaped Ancient India.

Aryaa is a collection of ten stories from Vedic and post-Vedic literature that brings to life the stories of ten women, each unique, each strong, each of whose story is an adventure in itself, and who shaped in small, and big, ways ancient India.

Eight of the women featured figure in the Mahabharata, while two are from the Upanishads. There is Shakuntala, born to an apsara and a sage, and who became the progenitor of the race of the Bharatas. Chitrangada, the warrior princess who married the Pandava Arjuna and whose stepson, Babruvahana, would meet his father in battlefield. One cannot talk about Chitraganda without also writing about Ulupi, the Naga princess who basically kidnapped Arjuna to have as her husband. From that union was born Iravan. The tale of Damayanti is perhaps the most romantic tale ever penned and whose account was narrated to Yudhishthira as a reminder that what was the present had repeated in the past; such was the way of itihasa—history. Subhadra, whose posthumous son was carried on the lineage of the Pandavas. Or Madhavi, who raises her father, Yayati, back to heaven after his fall on the strength of her merits. Then there is Satyavati, the fisherwoman who ensured her lineage survived in the face of the vicissitudes of fate and the dictates of karma. That leaves two women—Gargi and Maitreyi. Their accounts figure prominently in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Whereas Ved Vyasa is considered the composer of the Mahabharata, he is called the collector, organizer, of the Vedas. In that sense, even these two accounts are of women Vyasa wrote about. These two women are not only unique individuals in their own right, but also one of the most learned sages mentioned in the Vedas. 

In a retelling, there is some amount, or a fair bit, of artistic license at work. Else the story would not differ from the original account. Do it too little and the effect is not unlike watered tea; do it too much and the effect can be off-putting. In this anthology the writers walk, successfully, the fine line between prosaic retelling and fantastical re-imagination. Dialog adds to the vividness of some scenes, like this one—“He knows it is too beautiful a day to die.”—from the first story, Chitrangada. Nine of the stories are retold in prose, one in verse. That is an experiment that can go either way. But the story of Shandilyaduhita, the last one, is written in 4 and 8-line quartets. The story is taken from the Mahabharata and is an upakhyana in its own right. One of the shortest such upakhyanas, the Mahabharata does not tell us the female ascetic’s name. She is only referred to as Vriddhkanya (old maiden). This novel retelling is a standout story in the anthology. The lines, quartets, octets keep you reading, following the path of the young saadhvi’s progression from girl to aged ascetic and back to youthful beauty.

Aryaa is a fine effort by a talented group of ten authors, each of whom brings their own imagination, understanding, and artistic talents to the accounts of ten women from ancient India. Curated by Shivakumar G.V, this is an admirable anthology that will appeal to young and adult readers alike.

This review was first published in The Daily Guardian on Monday, April 3 2023.

© 2023, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Mahabharata The Epic and the Nation, by GN Devy - Review

Mahabharata The Epic and the Nation, by GN Devy

What gives the Mahabharata its "timeless magic", what about the epic has captivated the imaginations of millions, do its characters make it so captivating, or is it the philosophical ideas captured therein? The book avers that it answers all these questions. 

Ved Vyasa is considered the author of the Mahabharata. The appellation Ved Vyasa means someone who divided the Vedas. Ved Vyasa can therefore refer to more than one person. Krishna Dwaipayana is also called Ved Vyasa. 'Krishna' means dark, and Dwaipayana means 'island born' and is derived from 'dweep', which means island. He was dark in color and was born on an island, which is why he was called Krishna Dwaipayana. The author translates it as 'Krishna of the Dark Island'. A cursory look at any Sanskrit dictionary may have sufficed by way of clarification, like Monier-Williams or Apte. The author didn't deem it necessary. One expected better from someone who has written and edited ninety books and was awarded a Padma Shri in 2014.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Ajaya, by Anand Neelkanthan—Review

Ajaya: Roll of the Dice, by Anand Neelkanthan

A screed, a rant, but not a book, not a story.

This is a book written with the sole purpose of inciting outrage, and therefore, publicity, and therefore sales. 

Is this an alternate retelling of the Mahabharat? No. It reads more like the outpouring of a mind that sees discrimination everywhere and consequently projects it on to the characters in his book. The molester of a woman, the instigator, the one who cheered are the heroes and protagonists. Tells something, tells all, doesn’t it, and then some more, about the book and its author? 

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Vishnu Purana, tr. by Bibek Debroy

Vishnu Purana, translated by Bibek Debroy

A book that stays close to its definition

Why was Drupada, father-in-law of the Pandavas and Draupadi’s father, called a Panchala? Because one of Puru’s descendants was Haryashva, who had five sons — Mudgala, Srinjaya, Brihadishu, Yavinara, and Kampilya. So confident was Haryashva in his five sons’ valour that he declared that these five alone were capable of protecting the kingdom. Thus, these five brothers came to be known as Panchalas.

Or why was the capital of the Kurus called Hastinapura? Because one of Puru’s descendants was Hasti, and who established the city of Hastinapura. Both nuggets of information come to you in the 19th chapter of the 4th part of the Vishnu Purana.

King Rituparna was a descendant of Bhagiratha; the same Bhagiratha who brought down Ganga from the heavens. Karna’s foster father was Atiratha. He found the infant Karna floating on the Ganga, took him home, and was raised by him and his wife, Radha. It turns out that Atiratha was one of Anu’s descendants. Anu was one of Yayati’s sons. This is described in the 4th chapter of the 4th part of the Vishnu Purana.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Buried (Hush Collection), by Jeffrey Deaver

Buried (Hush Collection), by Jeffrey Deaver

'Buried' is a short novella, at under 100 pages, and runs at a fast clip, keeping me - the reader - engaged throughout. 
The plot is simple enough - a serial killer has returned to the small town of Garner and a too-old-to-be-taught-new-tricks journalist, Edward “Fitz” Fitzhugh, heads out to report on the story the old fashioned way. Meanwhile, the kidnap victim is in a race against time to free himself before time, air, and opportunity run out. One eyewitness to the kidnapping refuses to reveal himself and come out in the open, till Fitz employs good old journalistic skills to track him down and get some hints about the probably kidnapper. 

There are some brief passages where the pace slackens and one gets the impression that Deaver is perhaps filling the pages, but those passages are brief. This is a fast-paced novella that kept me turning the pages. All in all, a satisfying read. 

In particular, the opening chapter grabs you by the neck. If I were in a store leafing through books at random and if I came across this book, the first three pages would be enough to make me buy it. Yes, openings matter.

© 2022, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Classified: Hidden Truths in the ISRO Spy Story”, by J. Rajasekharan Nair - Review

Classified: Hidden Truths in the ISRO Spy Story, by J. Rajasekharan Nair 

A Sharp Look at the ISRO Spy Case.

The short of the matter, for people who have not followed the case closely, is that Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) scientist S. Nambi Narayanan and others were accused of spying and conspiring to sell to Pakistan cryogenic engine technology. For close to three decades the matter rolled around in the corridors of the judiciary, roiling and ruining lives, till 2018, when the Supreme Court ruled that Narayanan’s arrest had been unwarranted, and ordered compensation of Rs. 50 lakhs to be paid to him. Another accused, scientist K. Chandrashekhar, slipped into a coma hours before the verdict was announced, and died soon thereafter. 

Veteran journalist J. Rajasekharan Nair has been following the case since it broke out. His book, “Classified: Hidden Truths in the ISRO Spy Story”, is an updated version of the book he had written in 1998, “Spies from Space: The ISRO Frameup”. He has brought out additional facts and updated the book based on the Supreme Court verdict of 2018 and developments since. What the book reveals is a story of bureaucratic egos and petty revenge dramas, of foreign agents embedded high up in the government, of political games and apathy, cover-ups galore, and international games of espionage and arm-twisting. 

Saturday, March 26, 2022

The Reacher Guy: The Authorized Biography of Lee Child, by Heather Martin - Review

The Reacher Guy: The Authorized Biography of Lee Child, by Heather Martin

(Amazon India, Kindle)

Heather Martin’s authorised biography of Lee Child, ‘The Reacher Guy’, is the story of James Grant the person, Lee Child the author, and Jack Reacher the character.

James Dover Grant goes out on 1 September 1994 and buys “three pads of lined paper, one pencil, one pencil sharpener and an eraser for a total of £3.99.” In March 1995, he sends out his first ever letter pitching his novel. Writing as Lee Child, his first book, Killing Floor, is published in 1997. It is the first book to feature Jack Reacher as the protagonist. Two decades later, by 2018, it is estimated that approximately 400 Lee Child books, on average, sell every hour of every day. Night School, published in 2016, sells 18,000 copies a day. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books have sold well over a hundred million copies.